BENGALURU: In 2002, Serena Chopra first visited Bhutan on a trekking vaction with her friends. She was carrying her manual Hasselblad camera on the trip. Serena got back home with her favoured black and white images that begged her to visit the Himalyan nation again. She subsequently closed down her soft furnishing export business to focus on her photography and writing. Thus began her journey of documenting the lives and times of Bhutan, a decade ago.
Her major travels and treks into the remote interiors of Bhutan were from 2002 to 2007 and then again in 2013.
“In 2002 , Bhutan was a constitutional monarchy and was in its infancy in terms of opening the country to the outside world and to tourism. Many areas in the North East of Bhutan such as Merak and Sakteng where semi nomadic tribes live were considered restricted areas,” she says of her first trip.
Serena was fortunate to have Her Majesty, the Queen Mother of Bhutan Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck, privilege her with the permission to visit some of these areas back then.
“I like to get to know and be familiar with my subjects before I photograph them,” she says.
Serena travelled the interiors and hidden valleys of the Himalyan kingdom and lived as guest in Bhutanese homes for the project.
Spanning a period of twelve years of her travel, Bhutan was unexplored, untouched by globalisation and its negative fallout; more than 70 per cent forestation and a rich biodiversity; a strict code of conduct that was jealous of guarding its culture and Bhutanese identity; no cellphones and limited connectivity with roads worked as natural barriers to the onslaught of rapid modernisation.
This meant that she had to often trek at least nine days before she reached a village where she could stay to mingle with the villagers and get to know more about their lives and culture.
“With my guide Kinlay and a local Bhutanese cook and muleteers as my team , we made our way over rugged terrain unexplored by most Bhutanese in those days. We walked through the days and camped in the wilderness at night.” says Serena who has been an entrepreneur for 20 years until in 2004, when she returned to work with photography and journalism.
During the treks, Serena soon became a part of the villages and the lives of the villagers.
“Acceptance came slowly as I revisited various families over the years in far flung villages,” she says.
She became familiar with the joys , trials and tribulations of their lives, their fears, hopes and aspirations and could experience “the pleasure of being more than a welcome guest” in their homes and lives.
“I felt part of the family. In the capital city of Thimphu too I made life long friends,” she says.
The biggest roadblock she says was going back to India to process film and check contact sheets.
Bhutan being a mountainous country meant that she had to cross high passes to access the next valley on foot. The language and dress and various social customs differed in each valley, she says.
“I found that in most regions , traditions were based on the amalgamation of the animalistic rites and rituals of the Bon religion and Buddhist practices,” she adds.
The photographs in her exhibition -- Bhutan Echoes -- are a personal reflection of the relationships and affinity she had to the people and their land. Serena trekked across the remotest of regions in the rugged country, with the same team, for over five years. “It was an experience in reinventing and finding new expression of myself through this journey,” she says.
The travels also had several serendipitous moments that changed her life and brought her closer to Buddhist philosophy.
“Sustained development that values the culture and environment makes Bhutan a precious example not only by comparison with India but for all developing countries,” observes Serena.
She adds that Indians can take lessons from Bhutanese on balancing the infrastructure with our environment.
“We can learn about controlled development , respect for the environment and proudly guarding our cultural identity,” she says. Serena did her post graduation in Journalism and that is when her love affair with photography took steam.
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